on becoming a mother

Self portrait during routine screening pelvic ultrasound, March 2018.

Self portrait during routine screening pelvic ultrasound, March 2018.

I have never known for sure if I wanted to have a child.  Growing up, I hated babysitting and had no patience or desire for children -- so much so that even when I was old enough to babysit, my mom would call my friend just a few houses down to come and watch my sisters if she left the house. As I’ve watched my dearest friends become beautiful and loving parents, I’d hold their babies and love them so, but still didn’t feel that urge or connection I hear so many other women talk about when they are around children and know with all of their being that they are meant to be mothers. I’ve always felt there are too many other things to do and see, and that I am too selfish, swear like a sailor, and love my quiet time too much to be responsible for the life of another human being.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 27, one of the first things the doctors immediately did was send me to the fertility specialist.  I remember sitting in her office alone, the day after my diagnosis, with her assistant -- a young, gangly man, (probably my age or younger), who sat hunched over, completely silent and nervous looking in the corner of the office.  We sat together in silence waiting for her to arrive with a giant 3D model of a vagina anchoring the center of the desk between us. She finally arrived, only to tell me what I already knew -- that I was too late in my cycle to harvest any eggs and that I’d need to start my treatments immediately. With the severity of chemotherapy, I risked my chances for ever conceiving a child and going into early menopause.  There was nothing she could do for me.

Even though I walked into that meeting knowing that these were my odds and that I was “fine” since I didn’t even want children and I was totally wasting my time, something inside of me hadn’t come to full acceptance of accepting the small possibility that maybe one day I’d want a baby.  I gave my prayers to the winds that day, glazed over the fine print in a daze, and signed my life away on the dotted line to begin treatments.

As the years have come to pass, my body has gone in and out of menopause, and transformed in a way where I’ll never know what it will be like to hold a baby in my arms and breast feed from my own source of nourishment.  Many of my friends tell me it’s awful and they couldn’t wait to bottle feed -- they’ve shared how bad their nipples hurt and how hard it can be for the baby to latch on -- but sometimes I guess I would’ve at least like to have had the chance to figure that out for myself.

During my last two visits at the NIH, I spent a lengthy amount of time sitting around a table in another sterile room talking with the genetic counselor about my fertility options.  She is a kind and bubbly girl my age, and after we talk for what seems like an eternity, she always politely slides a folder packed full of information and resources across the table to me, smiles and says “no pressure”. When she asks if I have any questions, I remind her that I haven’t even been on a date in over six years.

This past March during a routine pelvic abdominal ultrasound screening, I asked the technician if I could see what she was looking at during the test -- this is usually not allowed, but I was nervous when I saw her eyes grow big.  She turned the screen towards me, only to reveal that indeed, my body can still ovulate. “Do you see these two circles?” she asked. “If you were trying to get pregnant, you very likely would have ended up with twins!”

I’ll be 35 this year -- an age considered by much of medicine to have a “geriatric womb”. Over the last two years, I’ve been frequently visited by emotions of sadness, confusion and overwhelm from what feels like the deepest parts of my belly when I least expect it. I tried to rationalize and make sense of it all -- is this what they mean by “biological clock ticking? Or, is my body trying to tell me that I really do want a baby? How will I know?  I’d hurriedly wipe away my tears and stop myself from feeling the uncomfortableness and uncertainty of it all. But now, when I get a visitation, I rest my hands on belly as if I’m holding a baby in my womb and listen.

I still don’t know if I want to be a mother or if I want to harvest my eggs -- I’ve watched friends and family go through both, and neither seem easy.  But I do know that my body is capable of incredible miracles and possibilities that are sometimes unexplainable, and have even left some of my own doctors stumped. It’s overwhelming to be inundated and pressured with fertility information and to have to think about needing to make the decision on whether or not I’ll harvest my eggs in such a time sensitive manner -- the thought of pumping my body full of hormones even though my cancer  was hormone receptor negative seems risky and scary, and I worry it may set something else in motion with my TP53 mutation. If I don’t do the harvest, will I regret not knowing I at least tried for a child of my own? Will I be missing out on building a family? Who will take care of me when I’m old? Not to mention the harvest alone is $10,000.00, plus yearly fees to store, and upwards of $5,000.00 to implant. Some days I believe I’ll just meet the loveliest man when the time is right, and conceiving and carrying a baby through birth will be effortless. And some days I think that I could definitely become a mother even without a partner.

But mostly, I don’t like feeling that I am racing against Mother Nature -- this feels deeply counter intuitive. When I saw my oncologist last week, she brought it up again, and before I could even get the words “I think I’ll let the Universe take care of this one” out of my mouth, she said, “Now Amelia, I know you’d like to let the Universe take care of this one, but if you do the harvest then you will at least KNOW you have the option.”

This afternoon at lunch with my sister, I shared with her the challenges of weighing these decisions. She reminded me again that if the time ever came, she would happily offer me her womb if need be (her first offer was at age 17).  “Afterall,” she said “I was sent here by the winds.”